A new SEND minister NOW? Disabled children deserve better than to be a government testing ground for ambitious MPs

It’s not even the start of the school year and I’m already furious.

Why, you ask? Apart from the fact that the Department for Education is moving forward apace with its create-the-evidence-as-you-go-along reforms? I’m furious that when we published Matt’s “What’s new with the SEND Change Programme” the other day, we didn’t expect to soon be including a new—completely new—minister to drive these changes forward.

A mere 10 months since she came into office, pledging to care, that she’d listen and get things done (I paraphrase), Claire Coutinho skips off into the distance, clutching a shiny new title of Energy and Net Zero Secretary. As ministers go, I quite liked Claire as an individual. She was smart, competent, personable and friendly. It was clear to me that she would be “going places” politically, at least while her party remains in government. What no one expected was that it would be quite so soon. I’m not (necessarily) blaming Ms Coutinho for the move, I don’t know the machinations behind the decision or whether she was given the option to stay (though why would an ambitious politician turn down a juicy promotion?). I’m blaming those at the very top for shuffling the chess pieces to suit themselves rather than the people they are serving. Stability and continuity is vital, especially in an area as complex and important as SEND.

Mc Coutinho takes with her 10 months of learning about the SEND system, knowledge she cannot simply inject into her successor, David Johnston MP. This is knowledge he will have to acquire all by himself and in the shortest possible time as the Department’s plans for “SEND Improvement” steam ahead. There have been 13 SEND ministerial changes since the 2014 reforms, with 12 different ministers (Ed Timpson held it twice and Kemi Badenoch was maternity cover). This makes it abundantly clear the role is seen as a “proving ground” for potentially promising politicians, so long as they can hang on to their seats (Ed Timpson again).

The change will undoubtedly create delay within the department as the new minister gets his feet under the table as the latest in this long line of MPs in the role. Several of his predecessors didn’t even last long enough to warm what is surely a well-worn seat. I can’t even remember the names of some of them, they were there so briefly or achieved so little.

And all the while, as the revolving doors sweep in another new “up and coming” MP, rosy-cheeked with pride at their new title, disabled children, young people and their families flounder in a swamp of broken promises, missed provision, confusion, LA lies, and often expensive legal battles. It’s sickening, quite frankly and shows how little regard there is at the very top for our most vulnerable young people.

Who is the new Minister?

David Johnston OBE is, to give him his full title, the new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Education. He’s been an MP since 2019. He’s 41, but looks like he’s just left university (Balliol, Oxford). Mr Johnston was a comprehensive school boy who, before becoming a Tory MP was chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, a role which saw him awarded an OBE for services to "social mobility and education". He was also a member of the Social Mobility Commission (current chair, one Katharine Birbalsingh)

David Johnston, the new SEND Minister

As an MP, Mr Johnston sat on the Education Select Committee between 2020-21, so he should have some idea of the mess that SEND continues to be. Indeed, he spoke during a debate on the Specialist Workforce, although his understanding is a little puzzling:

“…While there are children who need specialist schools and other specialist provision, we know that children staying in mainstream education leads to better outcomes: they have better social skills; they have more independence; they have fewer behavioural problems. Having children with special educational needs in the classroom also improves other children’s tolerance and understanding.”

His contribution to the January 2023 debate on Children with SEND and their Families: Support showed a bit more understanding in mentioning poor communication and long delays from LAs leading to increased needs requiring EHCPs. But if he thinks this is the sum total of SEND, he has a surprise in store!

Is he the right person for the job?

Is SEND the right role for anyone in their first ministerial position? While they have to start somewhere, I’d rather it was in a less important area for sure. But while this is David Johnston’s first ministerial role, having looked through his bio and parliamentary record, it’s clear he is a hard-working MP, who cares deeply about social mobility. We can only hope this will extend to supporting children and young people with SEND, and especially those from marginalised communities.

One thing is for sure however, he has a lot of learning to do. No doubt he will follow in the footsteps of predecessors and do the rounds of meeting beleaguered parents and children who will, once again, tell of their experiences. Then he will most certainly get behind the Government’s plans for Improving SEND, even though they are not what is needed for children currently waiting for someone to please help them right now.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the things in the SEND Improvement Plan are welcome. But others are pointless such as testing (or not testing, depending on who you’re talking to) mandatory mediation, when mediation is supposed to be voluntary, and the idea that an LA will present the most appropriate schools in their “tailored list”. Also unwelcome is the appointment of the same research organisation that produced a scurrilous, parent-blaming report for the LGA, to a role creating “best practice” for SEND teaching. Plus, reneging on a promise to include a wider range of parents than just the NNPCF on DfE SEND Improvement committees (There is still time to put this right and it doesn’t need to be us).

Along with everyone else, we would like the opportunity to meet Mr Johnston, if he’s brave enough (I think Claire Coutinho rather liked us, actually). We won’t bite, promise… But we will be politely forthright, which is what I hope he would want. But our best advice is to sign up to SNJ new post alerts (top and bottom of page) and if you haven’t already, please do so too. And maybe even pop in a cheeky donation if you can. You know it makes sense 😉.

What does the SEND Sector say?

I asked some colleagues from the SEND sector for their thoughts. Understandably, everyone wants to be welcoming, even though they may be tearing their hair out. But no one except parents like us will be really honest about how they feel as they will now have to make contact with Mr Johnson’s office and request meetings, attempt to educate him about their particular sub-sector, yada yada, just like they’ve done so many times before with his predecessors.

Here’s what they said:

"We look forward to working with David Johnston as he comes in as the seventh minister overseeing the SEND reforms. He joins at a critical time as the Change programme begins and his commitment and energy to support its goals are going to be key to success"

Dame Christine Lenehan, Director, CDC

“The turnover in this role tells you all you need to know about the lack of political commitment to improving the situation for children with SEND.” 

Gill Doherty, SEND Action / SEND Community Alliance

"I have to be honest, it's very disheartening that the important role of children's minister has become a brief staging post in people's political careers. It takes time to fully understand all the issues in this complex brief, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that children and young people with SEND are simply not a priority for this government."

Catriona Moore, Policy manager at IPSEA

“It's absolutely vital that yet another change in Minister doesn't delay the urgent changes autistic children need.

“The Government has a very long way to go – every autistic child needs the right support at school and every teacher needs to understand autism. That’s why we’re calling on the Government to launch an autism school places taskforce to ensure the right school places and support are available for autistic pupils.

"We hope to talk to David Johnston about our vision for autistic children, and how the Government can help make it a reality.”

Tim Nicholls, Head of Influencing and Research at the National Autistic Society

“We congratulate David Johnston MP on his recent appointment.  However, with the sector patiently awaiting further clarity on how the department is implementing its proposed Improvement Plan, we are frustrated to hear of yet another change of Minister with responsibility for SEND.  This is a critical time for the sector.  We hope that the Minister will take every opportunity offered to meet with educators, practitioners, families and young people over the next few weeks and learn from those with lived experiences the impact that continued uncertainty is having on children and young people with SEND.”

Claire Dorer, CEO of NASS. 

A disabled child aged four will have had seven Children's Ministers in role in their short lifetime to champion their welfare in Parliament, none of these MPs can be expected to achieve anything if their average tenure is 23 weeks. The SEND Review was launched in 2019 but the transformation it promised must be championed by ministers who understands the complexities of these children and the inadequacies of the system meant to support them.  We question what it means about Government priorities for disabled young people if it is always the Children's Minister that gets moved in the dizzying Whitehall merry-go-round. 

Stephen Kingdom, Disabled Children Partnership

"We congratulate David Johnston MP on his appointment as Children’s Minister but it is an unenviable achievement to become the fifth children’s minister in less than two years and the seventh to oversee the Government’s landmark SEND reforms.

“The Government needs to move away from its merry-go-round approach to governance – previous ministerial changes have led to delays in addressing serious issues, and those providing education and training to young people with SEND desperately need stability, effective leadership and prompt action to address these long-standing issues.

“The challenges facing the SEND system are not uniform. As the representative body for specialist colleges we see the challenges our members face day in day out, but chief among them is the disparity in funding and support for education for those of school age compared to those aged 16-25. This lack of focus on those in the older age group is having a significant impact on the provision they are receiving. 

“We hope that the Minister’s previous experience working on the Education Select Committee will offer him some insight into the problems facing the sector. I welcome the chance to meet with the new Minister to talk to him about the needs and issues of our members in more detail.”

Clare Howard OBE, Chief Executive of Natspec

“With his background in social mobility, we hope that he believes as passionately as we do that education is a tremendous force in giving all children and young people the start in life that enables them to thrive and to truly reach their full potential.”

Mike Hobday, National Deaf Children’s Society

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Tania Tirraoro

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